What is contemplative neuroscience about?

Contemplative neuroscience is a relatively new field of research investigating brain changes associated with or resulting from various contemplative practices or long-term contemplative training. 'Contemplative' is a term now more commonly used to describe 'meditation', but is is also more encompassing than 'meditation' since in some traditions contemplative practice would be, for example, more readily described as 'prayer' or some other terms might be preferred. Most research in contemplative neuroscience has so far focused on examining neural correlates of mindfulness. This might be due to mindfulness programs being relatively easily accessible and and mindfulness being a foundational non-reactive metacognitive attention practice inherent in any contemplative practice. With the increasing numbers of studies in contemplative neuroscience it is important that the research starts making more fine-grained distinctions across contemplative practices and investigates neural correlates of such practices across contemplative traditions to inform further research and applications of this unique type of mental training to the exploration of the human potential for well-being.

Does mindfulness in schools work?

There is some encouraging initial evidence on possible beneficial effects of mindfulness in schools, but further rigorous research is needed, particularly with regards to long-term effects of mindfulness training on children's and adolescent's well-being. Specifically, cumulative evidence across 24 studies showed large (effect size) improvements for cognitive performance of children and adolescents and small effects for stress reduction and resilience (Zenner et al., 2014). Another cumulative study integrating findings across 20 studies reported small-moderate effects with largest improvements for psychological symptoms (such as anxiety and depression) and in clinical populations (Zoogman et al., 2015). Most recent meta-analysis which included evidence from 76 studies showed small effects across domains such as attention and psychological symptoms with larger effects at follow-ups of one to several months after completion of the programs (Klingbeil et al., 2017) – this highlights the importance of long-term (rather than several weeks or months) mindfulness and (more broadly) well-being programs in schools. Research on the effects of systematic contemplative practice programs other than mindfulness is currently very limited. 

Can mindfulness be helpful in aging?

The evidence on the effects of mindfulness programs in aging is currently limited. Some studies documented promising beneficial effects (e.g., Malinowski et al., 2017). The vast majority of currently available studies did not include follow ups and it is possible that some of the intervention effects require more time to develop. It is also likely that any initial beneficial effects would reduce if mindfulness practice is not continued. Further research on long-term effects of various types of contemplative practice programs is needed for conclusive inferences to be draws.